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Huge field readies for Houffalize cross country

Two thirds of the way from Liège to Bastogne, just off the E25 highway in southeastern Belgium, mountain bike racing’s own classic is set go on Sunday in Houffalize. It’s stop No. 2 of the five-race cross country World Cup circuit, with the women kicking off racing at 10:30 a.m., followed by the men in the afternoon at 1:30. This is the fourth year in a row and 12th time in 13 years that mountain biking’s premier circuit has come to this picturesque village tucked into the lush green of the Ardennes. Saturday saw the amateurs tackle the 7.7 kilometer course that’s become slicker and slicker

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By Jason Sumner, VeloNews Associate Editor

Find Roland's rainbows.

Find Roland’s rainbows.

Photo: Jason Sumner

Two thirds of the way from Liège to Bastogne, just off the E25 highway in southeastern Belgium, mountain bike racing’s own classic is set go on Sunday in Houffalize. It’s stop No. 2 of the five-race cross country World Cup circuit, with the women kicking off racing at 10:30 a.m., followed by the men in the afternoon at 1:30.

This is the fourth year in a row and 12th time in 13 years that mountain biking’s premier circuit has come to this picturesque village tucked into the lush green of the Ardennes. Saturday saw the amateurs tackle the 7.7 kilometer course that’s become slicker and slicker with the on and off rain that is Belgium’s hallmark. Pro race distances have yet to be released, but 4 laps for the women and 5 for the men seems most likely.

The size of the projected field for the men’s race — 209 names were on the start list — could rival any in World Cup history. Eighty-nine riders appeared on the women’s start list.

Meirhaeghe is one of the fan favorites.

Meirhaeghe is one of the fan favorites.

Photo: Jason Sumner

All the big names are here, including last year’s winner of the women’s overall, Barbara Blatter. The Specialized rider missed the opening stop of the series after coming down with a viral infection, but says she’s feeling back up to speed.

“It was very hard for me to miss the first race because it will now be very hard to win the overall again,” said Blatter, who also took the year-end title in 2000. “But I am feeling better now so that is good.”

The Swiss rider’s top competition will come from the usual cast of women led by the enigmatic Marga Fullana (Orbea). The 2000 world champion has been nearly unbeatable when she shows up to the races, taking the opener in Madrid and the last three World Cup races in Houffalize.

Also going strong is reigning world champion Alison Dunlap. Without the sponsorship pressures that come with racing in the U.S. — her Luna team doesn’t even have a tent in the expo here — the Colorado Springs resident can focus solely on racing. A week ago in Madrid, Dunlap was second to Fullana, and she has said the World Cup is one of her big season goals.

The rest of the women’s contenders should include the likes of Merida’s Sabine Spitz and Gunn-Rita Dahle, Subaru-Gary Fisher’s Chrissy Redden and Mary Grigson, Great Britain’s Caroline Alexander and Canadian Alison Sydor (Trek-Volkswagen). Prior to Madrid, Sydor had been traveling with her old Volvo-Cannondale team, racing the Swiss Cup series to tune up for the World Cup season.

In the men’s race Trek-Volkswagen’s Roland Green will be looking for a repeat of his historic 2001 win. A year ago the 27-year-old came away from Belgium with the first ever World Cup win for a Canadian male and the first by a North American man since Tinker Juarez in 1994.

“Obviously this is a special place for me,” Green said just before heading out for his Saturday training ride. “I had my big breakthrough here, plus this is such a great event. It’s got the best atmosphere.”

Chasing Green will be supper strong field, which includes at least a half dozen riders that could win without it being a surprise. Jose Antonio Hermida (Motorex-Bianchi), Christoph Sauser (Volvo-Cannondale), Roel Paulissen (Rainer-Wurz.com) and Bart Brentjens (Giant) head that list; 2000 Olympic champ Miguel Martinez (Full-Dynamix), Subaru-Gary Fisher’s Ryder Hesjedal and Julien Absalon (Motorex-Bianchi) also must be watched.

“I think you have to look at Green as the favorite,” said the Belgian Paulissen, who will be looking to perform well for his cycling-mad home country fans. “We were on a training ride on Wednesday and he was very strong. He dropped the other Canadians — Ryder, Seamus McGrath — but not me. So I think maybe I have a good day tomorrow too.”

The course in Houffalize begins a half block from the city center, heads through the heart of the old town, then winds it way up and out along the pavement of the Bois des Moines, a steep 1.5km road climb that hits 20 percent near the end. From there it’s into the woods, where two more tough climbs and lots of twisty single track await.

Martinez is still big in mountain biking.

Martinez is still big in mountain biking.

Photo: Jason Sumner

“It’s a great mix of riding,” said Volvo-Cannondale’s Kashi Leuchs. “There’s some very tricky sections and almost no time to rest. It’s just up then down, up then down.”

Check back to VeloNews.com Sunday for a full race report, photos and results.

Race notes
— Full-Dynamix rider Martinez said he’s 99 percent sure he’ll be riding in the Tour de France with his other team, Mapei-Quick Step. The petite Frenchman is splitting time between the two disciplines and this will be his last major mountain bike race until August’s world championships in Austria.

— Bike choice was a hot topic on Saturday, with hard tails outnumbering full suspension by roughly 2 to 1. The consensus seemed to be the wetter — and softer — the course was, the less advantage dual suspension would provide. But if things dried up — which could happen because of the very porous soil — a little extra cushion might be the choice. Green said he’s going full suspension either way because that’s what he rode last year.

— The atmosphere in Houffalize is truly amazing. All day Saturday people of all ages could be seen milling around the tech expo, which is in a small park between the city center and the slowly winding Ourthe River. Unlike most of the spectators at U.S. races, it is not just a crowd of amateur racers in between events, but actual fans keen to fill up the autograph spaces in the official event program.

“The people here are really excited to see the riders,” said Leuchs. “And they come back year after year.”

— Somebody forgot to tell the GT dealer in Belgium that Dunlap and downhiller Steve Peat both got hosed by the bike maker last year. Both riders could seen in cardboard-cut out form inside the GT tent in Houffalize, despite the fact that neither rides for the team anymore and both were shorted thousands of dollars when the company went bankrupt, then was bought by Mongoose parent company Pacific Cycle last fall.

— Besides Dunlap, Trek-VW’s Susan Haywood, and Luna’s Gina Hall are the only other American women here. Five Canadian women — Sydor, Redden, Trish Sinclair, Marie-Helene Premont and Kiara Bisaro — made the trip. On the men’s side Todd Wells and Walker Ferguson make up the U.S. contingent, one less than Mexico, which sent Ziranda Madrigal, Salvador Barriga and Armando Zacarias. Five Canadian men are here as well — Green, Hesjedal, McGrath, Chris Sheppard and Andreas Hestler.

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